It’s that time of year when the media either celebrate or bemoan the standing of their local schools, when editors, writers, and a troop of social commentators toss out various prescriptions for improvement in education, when one side wants more computers in the classrooms and another side wants evolution taught as a theory, when there is the usual bump-and-bang about the horrible state of American education and how we now trail Denmark in mathematics.
All of the above describe the climate of September just as surely as its cool nights and blue skies. Little Johnny may tromp off to his fourth-grade classroom unaware of the battle swirling round him, but swirl it does. How, everyone wants to know, can we improve Little Johnny’s education? How can we make the system work better? Should we add another half an hour of math here, subtract half an hour of music there? Should we push for more school days, more homework, more tests? What?
In terms of system and education, these are weighty questions for which this solitary book reviewer has no real answers. Truth to tell, the problems and solutions seem overwhelming, like being asked to design a pair of jeans that would fit everyone (or genes, if you wish). The debate is as perennial and as certain as the autumnal flight of birds southward down the Blue Ridge, but there seem no real answers.
So I won’t even begin to address how to improve “American education.” If, however, you want to know how to improve Little Johnny’s education, that is, his own individual education, I have a one-word answer: reading.
Despite the sophistication of the age in which we live — we’ll leave aside those cultural watersheds ranging from the Australian who over the weekend inserted a firecracker into his posterior to see what would happen to the woman who joins Ashley Madison online to improve her marriage — learning to read and then actually reading remain the surest path to education, knowledge, and perhaps even wisdom. Indeed, the old, traditional Three Rs — Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic — remain the tools needed for any academic undertaking whatsoever. Students who can read well, who can compose coherent prose and logical arguments, who can enter confidently into higher mathematics: these are always the students who have earned themselves an education.
To improve Johnny’s personal education, then, I say give the kid a book. Then another book and another and another. Read to him when he’s a toddler, and if he enjoys it, read aloud to him until he leaves home for college or work. As he makes his way through grade school, find the books that interest him. Sports? Dig out those grand old John Tunis novels. Wildlife? You’ll find scads of books on everything from worms to elephants in the local library. History? Ditto on the library and your local bookstores.
Then it’s on to middle school, where academic reading takes more of Johnny’s time. Here there be dragons, electronic beasts under the guises of pods, pads, and phones, games and laptops, emails and Facebook. (These monsters constitute a particular danger for boys, whose reading scores yearly run ten percent below those of girls and whose scores have dropped for thirty years, just about the time video games made their appearance. It’s why they call it Gameboy). To assess the time lost to the electronic playground, ask yourself how much time you yourself spend flitting around online on the laptop, then quadruple that time for a teen. Curtail the power of these electronic dragons by setting limits on them.
In high school, Johnny — he’s no longer so little — needs to move to books that cause him to think, to discern good literature from bad, goodness and wickedness. If he’s still on Harry Potter, well and good, but move him onto the Lord of the Rings and from there to the short stories of Ernest Hemingway. If he loves history, introduce him to Shelby Foote or Paul Johnson. If psychology is his bag, give him Mr. Dostoevsky. High school and college is when we should learn that words and how we use them matter, often much more than we’re aware. Words can bring us the love of our life. Words can destroy or make our reputations. Words can win us jobs and promotions. Words can endear us to our friends or make enemies of them.
Here I must interrupt my narrative — some may call it a mild rant — with one caveat. The books which Little Johnny and Big Johnny read matter. Content counts. When I used to operate a bookshop, parents would occasionally say, “I don’t care what Billy reads as long as he’s reading.” Really? Would you say, “I don’t care what Billy eats as long as he’s eating?” The food we put into our hearts, minds, and souls matters as much, if not more, as the food we put into our bodies. “Garbage in, garbage out” is only partially true. More accurate in the case of reading is “Garbage in, garbage in.”
We live in a divisive time in our nation’s history, yet surely most of us would agree that an education is meant to broaden a student’s horizons. More than any other activity, reading does precisely that. In the hands of a good writer, we can know the terror and despair of a soldier in Napoleon’s army in Russia in 1812; we can feel what it is to fall in love on a summer’s day in Brooklyn; we can discover why the Israelis and Palestinians remain locked in conflict. From the hammock in our back yard we can freeze with Scott and his men in the Antarctic; from the hearthside sofa in winter we can stroll the summer lawn parties at the Gatsby mansion; buoyed up by bed pillows we can take a raft to freedom down the Mississippi.
Do we want educated children? Let’s cut the distractions as much as possible and make them readers. Set aside a time each day for books — electronic or print. Entice Johnny into a comfortable chair with a good book. Give him his favorite beverage or some music he likes to help keep him there. Try to keep him reading for a while.
If necessary, use chains.